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Vacation Memories : Visitor Receives a Warm Welcome in Iceland

This is one of a continuing series on Memorable Vacations that appears from time to time in the Travel Section.

March 16, 1986|SUE MARTIN | Martin is a Times editorial employee.

When I came to the decision that my first vacation anywhere as an adult would be to Iceland, friends asked the obvious question: "But why Iceland when you could go to Paris or London?"

The answer was simple: For 12 years I had been writing to a pen pal, a girl named Erla, and although we'd fantasized about meeting, it wasn't until I had saved enough money for my first trip abroad that I began to think seriously of going. The comforting thought was that I would know someone there.

Because this was to be my first long flight, I expected a big adventure. And it was, from beginning to end. As a starter, the flight from LAX to New York was delayed from landing at JFK an hour and a half by bad weather and because only one runway was open.

Then after I learned I'd missed my plane, there was a relaxing plus: only about 20 people were on the next Icelandair flight to Keflavik. As a result, I was able to sleep.

Arrival at Keflavik was at 8 o'clock on a Sunday morning and suddenly I was flooded with doubts. Would I recognize Erla from her description? After meeting, would we find it easy to talk or would I have spent money on a trip I would regret?

Entering the airport terminal I was so loaded down with luggage that I looked like a bag lady. I looked around anxiously. A pretty, young blonde came tentaTively toward me. "Sue?" "Erla?" Then we hugged and all my doubts dissolved.

Erla introduced me to her dark-haired husband, Egil, and we piled into their English-made Ford Cortina for the drive to Reykjavik. We never stopped talking.

Visitors Discouraged

Though I knew the wily Vikings had named the island Iceland to discourage visitors (they had given ice-locked Greenland the more enticing name), I was surprised that the land, particularly in October, looked so much like California--except that many of the high basalt cliffs and mountains are sharp-edged and rugged.

The colors, too, were reminiscent of home in their predominant ochers and rich russet tones, still relieved at this time of year by tended pastures of green. The famous multi-hued sheep and ponies were everywhere and frequently strayed onto the road. There was snow only in the highlands surrounding Reykjavik, most visibly on the majestic head of Mt. Esja that looms over the bay of Reykjavik.

I saw the home of Dr. Kristjan Eldjarn, then president of Iceland. I was surprised that no one seemed to notice our passage, only a lone dog barking furiously beside the stark white house.

Not Disoriented

Iceland seemed strange, yet not so strange. I expected to feel disoriented or out of place in the "foreign" land but the feeling rarely came over me. Except at the end--and I'll get to that in a moment. Perhaps it was that there was such an array of international goods available in Reykjavik stores. I saw cars from Russia as well as souped up Camaros and Mustangs. I saw sweat shirts with UCLA and Notre Dame on them, even bottles of California wine in the market, and Levi's jeans in clothing stores.

In my naivete, I didn't expect this. They have the best Coke I ever drank, produced in a factory in town (must be that glacier water). Jeans were popular, but in general, both men and women were much better dressed than most Californians of similar ages and life styles.

Almost everyone spoke some English. Iceland publishes more books per capita than any country in the world and, at that time, it had seven daily newspapers for a population of roughly 110,000. Being a voracious reader, this was my kind of place.

Later though, when I was leaving for home, Icelandic government workers decided to go on strike. That included transportation, telegraph and telephone personnel, so we (the other 200 tourists and I) were really stranded. I mean, we're on an island in the North Atlantic, with no way to get off and no way to inform family and friends.

A couple of New Yorkers and I even tried to appeal to the strike committee. It did no good. The American Embassy did little to help. Eventually I visited one of the Icelandic newspapers and sent a telex to my boss at The Times to be relayed to my family. Finally, the strike committee let us go, although the strike continued. I was even interviewed at the airport.

Generous Hosts

But back to the holiday portion of this tale: Erla and Egil arranged for me to stay with a family in central Reykjavik as they were still living with Erla's parents.

What a delight it was to be with Lulla and Maggi, my landlords, and their two sons. I had a bedroom and half a bath to myself as well as use of the tub in the family bath.

At first Lulla only set out breakfast for me (part of the arrangement), but soon her generosity extended to lunch and dinner and I was able to sample Icelandic home cooking. I helped out with the dishes and other household chores. All for about $50 a week!

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